56

Alice is a project manager.

Bob is a team lead

Chris is a team member.

Alice emailed Bob, and CC'd Chris, and said, "Bob, will you please ask Chris to do X??"

A few hours later, Alice IM'd Bob and said, "Can you reply to my email?"

Isn't this sort of poor email etiquette? Just wondering if anyone would consider this a normal practice.

I think Alice can tell Chris herself... or if she wants to go through Bob, perhaps she should leave Chris off the CC list. IMing about it and insisting on an answer is even weirder.

  • 60
    Not so sure if it is rude, since it's a manager asking another manager to ask their team member to do some work, while also alerting the team member of possible incoming workload. This then allows Bob to say no or yes to the work depending on work load – Draken Oct 5 '16 at 16:06
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    The context matters a little. Is it a completely new task, and the first time it is being requested? Then maybe the email is simply so everyone is in the loop and knows whats going on. If it's been an ongoing thing, then it seems the email is blatantly passive-aggressive. I'm leaning a little towards passive-aggressive since she later IM'd requesting a response, seems a bit forceful. – pay Oct 5 '16 at 16:10
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    If Bob is the team lead, Alice is probably trying to avoid the appearance of taking over, even though she needs something very specific. CC of Chris is a courtesy that lets him know Bob is probably going to ask him to do something. – PoloHoleSet Oct 5 '16 at 18:52
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    Context matters a lot here. In the company I work for, a "project manager" (perhaps running a project with 1000 workers split across several departments and many teams, most of whom are not exclusively working on that single project) doesn't have any direct authority to ask a specific team member to do a specific non-trivial task. That would be cutting the team leader right out of the loop, and undermining an individual team's use of agile development methods, etc. Of course if it is self-evident to everyone that Chris is the "best" person to do the task, it does no harm to warn him about it. – alephzero Oct 5 '16 at 21:29
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    It would be more rude to directly assign work to a member of somebody elses team and try to bapass their line manager. The manager is there to manage conflicting priorities. theres nothing worse than having several managers all trying to assign you their own top priority job – rdab Oct 6 '16 at 8:29

10 Answers 10

126

It looks to me like it's just a matter of style. I don't think it's rude but I do think it's a little peculiar, though I wouldn't go so far as to call it strange.

Alice is simply making a trail and documenting the process through email. She's making sure she has a record of her asking Bob to assign a task to Chris. I think she's also making clear that she knows she's not Chris' team leader and is giving Bob an opportunity to disagree or comment on it.

In one respect, she's covering her butt. In another respect, she's giving everyone involved an opportunity to acquiesce or object.

The IM seems to me to be her way of saying that she needs written confirmation that he sees it and understands it. Having documentation of how things progress and the process is a very good thing, especially if something happens down the road. Bob might be the recipient of her directness this time, but he may be grateful to her attention to detail at a later date if something goes awry.

She's direct and perhaps could use a little more tact, but more than anything it strikes me as efficient and thorough.

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    It could also be that Alice is taking this level of thoroughness because of a history of either Bob or Chris being unresponsive. Burn me once, shame on me. Burn me twice, I want a paper trail of every single request! – Beofett Oct 5 '16 at 19:15
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    I would say it's weird, not to make a paper trail but to write an e-mail as though the person it affects isn't receiving it. Better to ask, "Could you plan task X? I'm pretty sure this would be Chris' task." In the sense of stating the problem instead of the solution, it actually isn't direct enough, since it requests a particular solution instead of stating a problem. Stating your actual problem is the proper way to be conscientious about other people's chain of command, not give them e-mails that sound weird and throw everyone off. – jpmc26 Oct 6 '16 at 5:47
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    @LindaJeanne You are correct, I misread it. Thanks. – Jonathan Pullano Oct 6 '16 at 18:22
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    "I don't think it's rude but I do think it's a little peculiar" I can't share your opinion. I don't find this behavior peculiar at all. It is simply observing the chain of command. This behavior was prevalent on US Gov contracts I have worked in the past. – Lumberjack Oct 6 '16 at 20:02
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    I've seen this type of email happen when Alice asks Chris to do something and Chris tells Alice, "Only Bob can change what I'm working on." Which usually occurs after Chris has complained to Bob that he is constantly interrupted by Alice.... Point is, someone wants these requests written down so that they can monitor just what is going on. – NotMe Oct 8 '16 at 0:21
49

I think this is totally normal. Let's assume Bob is the manager of Widget development and maintenance. Chris is the team member who does all the work with the purple widgets specifically. Alice has a question or a task that involves purple widgets and is aware that Chris is the team member that will most likely be looped in in the event of an issue with a purple widget. Alice emails Bob since he is the manager and person who delegates external requests to his team and also cc's Chris since its a purple widget issue so he knows its coming.

"Bob, will you please ask Chris to investigate the issue regarding the purple widget missing the whatchamacallit??"

It appears like an innocent email and keeping all relevant parties looped in on the communication. As for the follow up, I would assume Alice wants to make sure Bob is in receipt of email and is aware of the issue if it is urgent.

  • Indeed. Though maybe it could be formulated better, e.g. "Bob, please let someone from your team take care of the purple widget thingy. Maybe Chris, he did a good job on that last time" – Tobias Kienzler Oct 6 '16 at 6:49
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    @TobiasKienzler That may have already happened. Likely we're not seeing the very first email in the chain, just the one that was CC'd to Chris. – David Schwartz Oct 6 '16 at 7:10
  • @DavidSchwartz True, though that usually includes a long tail of previous messages, probably even the "How's your weekend been" in between. And the expectancy of sifting through them to figure out the necessary information that could have easily been summarized in two sentences by those already involved before... – Tobias Kienzler Oct 6 '16 at 7:15
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    @TobiasKienzler They may have had a long chain of emails or in person discussions. Then this message was done separately because Alice wanted to CC Chris, likely to avoid forcing Bob to formulate a description of the task. Assuming Alice and Bob work well together, this kind of informality for mutual convenience is common and likely how Alice knew Chris was the right person and why she didn't need to use flowery language or formalities to preserve Bob's security that he gets to decide who does what. – David Schwartz Oct 6 '16 at 7:29
  • Disagree. Email alone, this is normal. Email + IM, this is no longer normal. – CWilson Oct 7 '16 at 17:49
35

This is normal chain of command. Alice is not stepping on Bob's toes in asking Chris directly. Bob may need to push back because of other priorities, redirect from Chris to Dave, or disagree that the task should be done at all (compliance, procedure, etc.). Chris should act on Bob's nod.

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    It also allows Chris to estimate the task before Bob (his manager) rearranges scheduling, etc. – sixtyfootersdude Oct 6 '16 at 22:10
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    To Chris, this should seem like normal chain of command. To Bob, the recipient of both the email and the IM, this is not normal chain of command. You don't request an email response through IM, in order to 'not step on toes'. Perhaps Alice is unprofessional or worse, but more likely Alice is reacting to (real or imagined) difficulties in getting this done. – CWilson Oct 7 '16 at 17:53
15

One thing I haven't seen mentioned here is that Alice may not simply have the time to explain in detail the issue, but knowing that Bob knows, she's asking him to tell Chris.

Perhaps the task is very involved. "Can you ask Chris to fix X bug" and X bug is complicated and may require some discussion between Chris and Bob. Since Alice is Very Busy, she is passing this task off to Bob.

Additionally, CCing Chris warns him of the incoming work, and also ensures that it gets done. If Bob forgets, Chris can ask "What was that bug fix all about?"

I have been the Chris in this situation, and have seen this play out in real life. Some Alices like to CC everyone, and expect to remain part of the dialogue to be sure that things are going smoothly, especially when they're urgent.

  • Exactly! And in addition to the content (and validity) of the request this also allows Bob to determine things like timing/priority of the request. – Dennis Jaheruddin Oct 9 '16 at 10:59
8

I haven't actually been the PM in this scenario, but I have been the team lead. There is always context, but I read this as Documentation of Communication. Other answers could be right, that this is seen as normal by the PM, or that the PM is trying (oddly) to be polite. I see three other possibilties:

  1. Alice has already asked Chris directly to do this, and didn't get an answer or a deliverable. Documentation of escalation.
  2. Alice has already asked Bob (recently or as part of the plan published months ago) to take care of this, and doesn't think that Bob ever asked Chris. Documentation while moving project along.
  3. Alice is used to things not going well (with this person/team/department/project/company/career). Documenting preemptively.

The IM makes 3 unlikely, and 2 less likely. Probably Chris was unresponsive, and Alice is tired of dealing with him.

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    4. Alice is just quite forthright and pushy and knows that copying additional people in increases the likelihood of someone picking up the email and doing something about it. – Ant P Oct 6 '16 at 9:51
  • @AntP Don't forget about the IM. That goes a little beyond forthright, and comfortably past pushy. IMs are meant to be private, or at least more so than email. This isn't about simply hoping to find 'someone' to do 'something'. Or Alice is just wrong here, rude and/or unprofessional. – CWilson Oct 7 '16 at 17:57
  • @CWilson: What do you mean by "IMs are meant to be private, or at least more so than email."? I do not see how there can be any general statement about the relative relationship of IMs and e-mails except for maybe "IMs are meant to be more synchronous/immediate than e-mails." Assuming we are talking about an IM connection that is typically used for work-related things, I don't see how it could be more private; with common setups such as MS Exchange + Lync, the boundary between IM and e-mail blurs, anyway. – O. R. Mapper Oct 8 '16 at 23:52
  • @O.R.Mapper Thank you. Of course you are correct, that technologically IM, like any electronic communication, or really any communication, is no longer actually private. I was not referring to what the creator of the technology 'meant'. I was saying, and still assert, that IM is 'used as', and 'seen as' ('meant') more private by the one who sends the message. It is a way to have a sidebar, and most people think and act as if IM is at least more difficult to Forward than email. In this case, a better synonym for 'private' would be 'separate', or 'aside', not 'secret'. I stand by my statement. – CWilson Oct 9 '16 at 3:05
  • @CWilson: E-Mails are forwarded, IM conversations are copy-and-pasted. I don't see a difference there. But even so, I don't see why the expectation that a given IM message will not be forwarded, because it is more "private", would imply that sending the message is "comfortably past pushy". – O. R. Mapper Oct 9 '16 at 11:26
7

It seems reasonable to me. Alice asked Bob, the team lead, to make Chris do work. It sounds like Alice knows the structure of the team and is asking Bob, the lead, to assign work that Alice wants.

At some point Alice felt Bob did not respond in a reasonable time - maybe even urgent - and ask to give a status update so that Chris, Bob, and Alice are all on the same page. Bob would simply reply something like, "Alice, Chris is currently assigned work X and will be available to do your work in a week. I will assign him the ticket." Alice may then say it is too soon and ask if someone else can do the work instead, or ask Chris to drop his current assignment and work on what is requested.

Seems reasonable?

6

I've had the reverse happen where I work.

The HR manager forwarded some documents to me, and CC'd my boss, X.

The email read:

cst1992, please discuss these with X. They were sent by Company Y.

This was good, for the following reasons:

  1. X now knows Company Y sent us something.
  2. The HR manager kept X in the loop.
  3. X expects me to come discuss the documents in the near future.
  4. I was saved the trouble of needing to tell X before the meeting, as I know he already knows.
  5. This is on the record.

As here my boss is senior to me, this is a potentially worse situation than described in the question.

But all in all, I don't see an issue.

6

This is not fine. It is bad etiquette, but the reason is subtle. The problem isn't so much that Chris got CCed on the e-mail as much as her handling of the situation as a whole.

There are a couple possibilities:

  1. If Alice, being the project manager, is the one primarily responsible for assigning tasks and priorities, then it doesn't make any sense for her to use Bob as a middle man. Involving Bob in something that is not his problem would just be bad management.

  2. The second possibility is more charitable. It relies on a couple assumptions (that other answers make, as well):

    • Bob is the one primarily responsible for prioritizing and assigning work to team members.
    • Alice is doing this primarily to create a paper trail.

      If that's the case, this is still bad etiquette. Her e-mail assumes two things:

    • Bob will assign task X to Chris.

    • Bob will prioritize task X very soon.

      If Bob is primarily responsible for managing Chris' tasks, then she can't assume either of these things. Chris may have more important work that needs to be done before task X, or he may decide to assign task X to someone else. In this scenario, she can't make assumptions about the outcome of Bob's decision. So she should leave those possibilities open in her e-mail. Something worded like this would be more appropriate:

      Hi, Bob. I need task X done, and I need it by such and such time. I think Chris is probably the best person to handle this. Can we get that done?

      If the task was previously assigned to Chris, then the wording could be adjusted to reflect that:

      Hi, Bob. I need task X done, and I need it by such and such time. Chris was previously assigned this task, but it isn't done yet and I'm concerned about getting it done on time. Can we prioritize working on it? Maybe we can assign it to Dan if Chris doesn't have time?

      Notice the difference. The original wording assumed that Alice had the authority to make these decisions. This message instead takes an attitude of, "This is my problem. I think this is probably the best solution, but I'm open to other possibilities if there's a reason this won't work." That is a vastly different way of approaching the problem. These can be adjusted to account for other important factors, of course, but the general approach needs to remain the same: I have a problem; please help me solve it.

      It's inappropriate to create a paper trail demanding someone implement a particular solution if you don't have the authority to make that decision.

  • 1
    Perhaps Chris has already failed to deliver on task X, which was requested earlier, and this is Alice's way to light a fire under Chris while informing his team lead that it hasn't been done? – Jon Custer Oct 6 '16 at 13:10
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    @JonCuster If Alice is the one primarily responsible for assigning tasks to Chris, she should address this directly. If Bob is, then she either should not CC Chris on such an e-mail or should leave open the possibility that there's a reason related to other tasks that Chris hasn't delivered. I think my answer is still mostly applicable in that case. – jpmc26 Oct 6 '16 at 13:43
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    Your second point amounts to just an objection about the wording. I assumed the question was just providing the gist of the communication rather than the full text of the email. – user45590 Oct 7 '16 at 15:52
  • I agree with @JonCuster, that the email is probably to 'light a fire', and I agree with jpmc26 that this is not the most long term effective or politest way to accomplish this. But it sure is common. – CWilson Oct 7 '16 at 18:03
  • @user45590 It's not an objection to the wording. It's an objection to the attitude and thinking that generated this wording. – jpmc26 Mar 12 at 18:03
2

In theory Bob has the big picture view of the team's priorities so this might seem fine (Alice needs to keep in mind that she could be wrong and Bob may say no, Chris is working on more important things right now). In practice this is a sign that Chris and Alice need to improve their working relationship.

If the project manager is nagging and escalating, it's because the person working on the project is not working fast enough for her. This usually happens when other priorities have taken precedence and Chris's time is otherwise allocated.

Either Chris is misunderstanding the priority of his task on the project or Alice is misunderstanding the priority of her project relative to Chris' other work. Sure, the team lead can work it out, but is that really what anyone wants? More work for Bob, Chris gets micromanaged, Alice shows lack of influence.

If Alice and Chris want to grow, they should work it out together. Chris wants to have control of prioritization so he's not micro-managed. Alice wants to get things done, but she needs to accurately assess the relative priority of her projects. And hopefully Bob has better things to do than mediate a minor priority conflict.

Alice and Chris should have lunch together and come up with a good way of working together where schedules are clearly articulated and priorities are in sync.

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    Who says Chris doesn't want to be micromanaged? He may have already been approached and told Alice directly to run it past Bob. – Ant P Oct 6 '16 at 10:05
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    @AntP, I agree - this is one of the most common reasons for this type of email especially if Chris is a shared resource (someone who potentially works on all projects or clients). Chris may be aware that there is a potential conflict in priorities and wants his boss to let him know which is more important. – HLGEM Oct 6 '16 at 14:37
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    It is possible Chris wants bob Bob to formally express priorities (though that's not how the story is presented), but I hope you're not seriously suggesting that anybody wants to be micromanaged. Workplace happiness studies consistently show that autonomy is the biggest indicator of job satisfaction and happiness. – jorfus Oct 6 '16 at 16:01
2

I've seen things escalate to that point on numerous occasions.

If the following is what's been going on, then this is absolutely not strange. It's just a warning sign:

  • Alice is used to just going directly to Chris to have him do "something".
  • Bob has been asking Chris about his progress on some other item/project. Chris has let Bob know that Alice keeps making requests interrupting his progress.
  • Bob, in a decision to exercise his authority, told Chris that his priority is X and to ignore Alice's requests.
  • Alice asks Chris to do something, Chris let's her know she needs to go through Bob. Alice isn't quite happy with the situation.
  • She gets Bob on the phone and they have a nice "conversation" on this. Likely Alice has some pull with a common boss. The result of which is that Bob demands these requests to be in writing. Likely in some forlorn hope to convince that common boss that Alice is being unreasonable.
  • Alice sends the email.

If I were Chris, I'd just accept that these emails are going to show up. If I weren't one of the 3 involved parties I'd stay out of it completely because the only way I've seen this resolved is with changes to the reporting chart. If I were Bob, I'd be worried that I've handled this situation entirely wrong.

protected by Chris E Oct 7 '16 at 17:48

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